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BG baseball’s back

For a few Falcon athletic teams this season, being picked to finish near the bottom of a conference has actually been somewhat of a blessing.

Last July, the football team was slated to take fifth out of seven in the Eastern Division of the Mid-American Conference. They then finished at 8-4 in the 2007 regular season and were selected for their first bowl game in over three years.

The men’s hockey team has faced an uphill battle all season after being tabbed for the basement spot in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association this winter. Instead, they have put together one of the more successful seasons in recent memory and are currently in position for home-ice advantage when the playoffs begin.

Thus, when MAC officials picked the Falcon baseball squad to finish sixth in the East Division this spring, they just may have done BG a favor.

‘I would certainly hope the guys would use it as a motivation tactic this season. That’s not where you want to be picked at, but after last season’s finish, that’s probably where we deserve to be,’ said BG coach Danny Schmitz, citing the team’s woes last season in which they finished 22-32 overall and won just seven of 27 MAC games.

Schmitz enters his 18th season in the Falcon dugout with over 450 career wins and two MAC tournament titles, with the most recent title coming back in 2002. Since that year, however, BG has seen three losing seasons tarnish the program’s not-so-long-ago luster.

‘I think in the past couple of years, the guys have been living on the tradition of the program,” Schmitz said. ‘Well, now it’s up to these guys to live up to that tradition and get the winning ways going again.’

Looking to do so will be an extremely young team that features only three seniors and loses six of last season’s positional and pitching starters, though the latter might not be such a bad thing.

PITCHING

The biggest question mark on this team, and there are many, is that of the pitching staff. The three top returning pitchers, Marty Baird, Nick Cantrell, and Dusty Hawk, featured a combined 6.00 ERA last spring.

Helping to turn that and other poor mound numbers around will be the addition of first-year pitching coach Rick Blanc, a 1998 BG graduate, who joined the team this past fall.

‘He’s a guy who can help develop a pitching staff, and that’s something that’s going to be needed this year,’ Schmitz said. ‘We need to round out that pitching staff right away and when we get back from Bradenton [the team’s spring break trip from Mar. 1 to Mar. 8], we want to be settling in on a starting rotation with closers in place.’

Cantrell, one of only two senior pitchers this year, noted the team’s new stress on a walk to strikeout ratio of 3:1 under Blanc.

‘Last year we walked way too many guys,’ said Cantrell, who along with catcher Travis Owens will serve as a team captain this year. ‘If we’re more consistent this year pitching as a team and hold every team under six runs, we’re always going to be in the game.’

HITTING

At the plate, the Falcons return seven hitters who hit at least .275 last season, including Derek Spencer who finished over .400 as a freshman. The lone positional senior, Andrew Foster, is a Bowling Green native who smashed four home runs and led the team in RBI’s and doubles last year.

Rounding out a lineup that will need to show more consistency at the plate are juniors Marty Baird (.298 with seven triples), Brian Hangbers (.296 with seven homers), Brandon McFarland (.348 with seven doubles) and Ryan Shay (51 hits and led the team in at-bats).

‘We’re making improvements every day,’ said captain Travis Owens who would like to improve on his .238 sophomore average. Owens noted that he ‘feels more comfortable being a leader’ in the co-captain spot and that this could translate into improvement in other areas of his game.

Owens is also helping to bring along freshman Ryan Schlater in the catcher position for the future and stated that the young team is ‘anxious’ for the season to start, but also ‘looking forward to it.’

NEWCOMERS

Coach Schmitz and the Falcons welcomed seven freshmen this season, five of whom could be ready to see action on the mound.

Two transfers from Longwood University, sophomore infielder Frank Berry and junior pitcher Kevin Light, also could see some major playing time. Berry and Light left their previous college baseball careers in Virginia because the school was an independent and the players, according to Schmitz, ‘wanted to have the opportunity to play for something.’

Schmitz spoke extremely positively of both the seven freshmen and the two former Longwood players.

‘They live, breathe, and die the game,’ Schmitz said. He went on to mention Clay Duncan, Brennan Smith, Charles Wooten and Patrick Martin in particular as the new generation of Falcons who are already showing exceptional work habits during practices at Perry Field House.

Though the team has not been able to practice outside yet this year due to inclement winter weather, everyone on the team seems to have positive feelings about this weekend’s series in Bowling Green, KY against the Hilltoppers.

Captains Cantrell and Owens both expected the team to win at least two out of three from Western Kentucky, and mentioned how well the team chemistry is coming together already.

‘We’re gelling,’ Owens said simply. ‘You always see three or four of us together, whether it be just going out to eat or supporting our Falcon athletics, and it’s never the same three or four guys either,’ said Cantrell, who will start the first game of the season Friday at 3 p.m.

‘It’s something that we have preached since the fall, that you can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have chemistry, you have nothing,’ said Schmitz. ‘Even with less talent you can do some amazing things. You can really overachieve.’

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